Contrary to laments from the Far Left and condemnations from the Right, Israel’s patriotic Left is behaving nobly and shrewdly, proving that liberal Zionism is alive and well. Hamas’s evil has united Israelis in their “ein breira” no choice struggle – even crime rates plummeted. Israeli democrats, left to right, are teaching the world how to fight totalitarian Islamists.
When opposition leader Isaac Herzog says “we must hit Hamas as if there are no peace talks with Abbas, and pursue peace talks with Abbas as if we are not hitting Hamas,” Herzog shows that this peacenik knows to first fight to survive. When Amos Oz asks what do you do if your neighbors hide behind children while firing guns, Oz teaches that democracy is not a suicide pact. After the war, if Israeli liberals apply their new realism to develop creative solutions that don’t replicate the same old peace-processing mistakes, they may be able to leverage their enhanced credibility with many Israelis tired of seemingly perpetual war and hungry for new reality-based visions.
Mainstream Israeli liberals today are demonstrating an authentic, muscular, patriotic liberalism. The decadent, defeatist political correctness thriving in European capitals and on American campuses, abandons liberal idealism for tokenist identity politics. These self-hating cowards misperceive the natural, salutary, “rally around the flag” effect when enemies attack as a McCarthyite betrayal rather than a fulfillment of liberalism’s life-affirming values.
America’s “don’t tread on me” revolutionaries were never too conflicted or guilt-ridden to defend their country or their core ideals. Similarly, Israel’s patriotic liberalism resonates in the ever-expanding judiciary-protected universe of rights for women, gays, Arabs, protestors; in vigorous wartime debate about how to win; the many reservists who vote left but fight hard; and yes, the pilots trying to minimize damage, keeping Palestinian civilian casualties figures far below the “collateral damage” rates in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Israel’s patriotic Left reflects Thomas Jefferson’s life-liberty-and-pursuit-of-happiness liberalism; Oliver Wendell Holmes’s don’t-shout-fire-in-a-crowded-theater balance; Franklin Roosevelt’s we-are-soft-hearted-but-not-softheaded anti-totalitarianism; and John Kennedy’s we-will-bear-any-burden altruism. Barack Obama himself continues authorizing drone warfare, despite 1,000 to 4,000 civilian casualties, because he recognizes his "solemn duty and responsibility to keep the American people safe. That’s my most important obligation as President and Commander-in-Chief.”
Liberal Zionism has long blended pragmatism and idealism, with tower and stockadetower and stockade initiatives that built kibbutzim, Haganah and Palmach brigades that established the state, warmakers turned peacemakers like Yitzhak Rabin, and reluctant fighters like Golda Meir, who never forgave Arab adversaries “for forcing us to kill their children.”
This heritage produced a powerful nuanced progressivism capable of distinguishing between Abbas and Hamas, between West Bank security cooperation and Gazan terror tunnels, between those building infrastructure for a future state and those obsessed with destroying the Jewish State. Some Israelis trust Abbas, some don’t. Still, the spectrum of opinion is wide, the vibrant debate continues.
You would never know that from reading the New York Times’s latest eulogy for Liberal Zionism doubling the usual column space – nearly 1600 words – for yet another sloppy, simplistic, distorted anti-Israel rant. These tiresome paint-by-numbers, echo-chamber essays see no complexity, nuance or diversity in modern Israel. They caricature Bibi-stan as a “repressive” regime run by racists, reactionaries, and ultra-Orthodox with the “only Zionism of any consequence today” being “xenophobic and exclusionary, a Jewish ethno-nationalism inspired by religious messianism,” according to Antony Lerman’s August 22 “End of Liberal Zionism.”
Something about Israel makes intellectuals unhinged. Why must their rhetoric about the country be so sweeping, categorical, rejecting, demonizing?
Lerman’s diatribe joins a pile of sky-is-falling essays, showing little understanding of Israel, Zionism, or liberalism, simply internalizing and legitimizing the delegitimizers. These critics must dismiss Israel’s Left to support the cartoon of theocratic, undemocratic Israel they then bash.
Rather than Liberal Zionism’s “Ending,” it’s maturing. Rather than asserting – ignoring contradictory polls -- that “Israel’s Move to the Right Challenges Diaspora Jews,” the truth is that “Israel’s Patriotic Left offers an Important Model for Diaspora Jews – and Liberals Everywhere.”
Lerman’s op-ed reflects the New York Times’ Bizarro world, reversing reality. Just as Richard Behar in Forbes recently catalogued the ways Times’ reporters exaggerate and showcase Palestinian casualties, we can see the Times’s op-ed page has relentlessly, misleadingly, mourned the demise of Israeli democracy while ignoring Zionism’s diverse left to right ideological debates. Within the past year, it printed harsh accusations falsely comparing Israel to “the American South” and “South Africa” idiotically imagining that “Iranians are gradually liberalizing while increasingly orthodox Israelis are drifting toward theocracy” and naively lamenting that “We’re not dealing anymore with your grandfather’s Israel” – as if 1950s’ Israel was a democratic Shangri-La not forced to make tough life-and-death calls, just as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt did. And theTimes keeps treating hysterical predictions as truth, that Israel is poised “for ruthless oppression,” that its “drift toward a culture of hatred toward Arabs will continue.”
No democracy is perfect, not Israel, not America, not even Canada the nice. But better to be occasionally ugly and alive than lovely and permanently dead. Democracies need a patriotic Left and a tolerant Right. Democracies need confusing characters like Ruby Rivlin and Bibi Netanyahu, both of whom defend democratic rights from the Right. And democracies need complex thinkers like Isaac Herzog who can balance conflicting ideas in a complicated world.
This week, Seth Rogen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and about 200 other colleagues proclaimed: “while we stand firm in our commitment to peace and justice, we must also stand firm against ideologies of hatred and genocide which are reflected in Hamas'' charter.” How ironic that our intellectuals are failing us in the bulletin board of the Northeastern elite, the New York Times op-ed page, even as these Hollywood types got it right with a nuanced, pro-Israel petition, in the great traditions of liberalism and Zionism.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and will be teaching at the IDC in Herzliya this fall. He has written eight books on US history, including, most recently, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press.